BOSTON — SINCE the first women's studies program began at San Diego State University 23 years ago, critics have disparaged the discipline with terms ranging from unintellectual, touchy-feely stuff to propaganda and oppression studies.
Not only did they trivialize it, but "many people thought it was a fad," says Caryn McTighe Musil, a senior research associate for the Association of American Colleges in Washington.
But instead of fading into obscurity, women's studies continues to crop up on campus after campus, and scholars in the field say it has affected many other disciplines.
"Women's studies has had an indelible impact on the curriculum ... especially in the humanities and social sciences," says Sally Kitch, director of the Center for Women's Studies at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio. "The research and scholarship of women's studies have penetrated in those fields so that it's impossible not to think about gender issues."
For example, says Linda Wilson, president of Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Mass., the machines of the Industrial Revolution were invented to take advantage of cheap female and child labor. But material written about the period usually focuses on working men. "If you begin to look at women's role in it, it transforms one's understanding of the whole Industrial Revolution, and that's happened in area after area," Ms. Wilson says.
These pedagogical changes are occurring partly because women's studies have seeped into mainstream course offerings. Over the past five to 10 years, more institutions has included such courses in their general-education requirements, says Wendy Kolmar, director of women's studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "You're reaching a more diverse body of students than when it's purely an elective," she says.
Today two-thirds of universities, one-half of four-year colleges, and one-quarter of two-year colleges offer women's-studies courses. There are 621 programs - an increase of 20 percent from the last count in 1988.
Some of the strongest programs are found at big state universities. Many of the Ivy League and private women's colleges established programs much later, Ms. Kolmar says. "I think that a lot of the women's colleges had kind of a sense that they didn't need to do women's studies because they already in some ways lived it," she says. "A lot of the state universities were much more conscious of needing to do things for their women students."
A women's-studies program typically consists of an interdisciplinary introduction to the field that incorporates theory and research methodology. Other courses might include the sociology of gender, women in literature, and women's history.
Women's-studies scholars say their subject has been doing for the past 20 years what many educational-reform reports are now recommending. "Women's studies can answer some of the questions we have been seeking for revitalizing our educational system and increasing the quality of it," Ms. Musil says.
These findings were discovered in the first study of women's studies classes. "The Courage to Question: Women's Studies and Student Learning" is the recently published report of a three-year study involving hundreds of faculty members and thousands of students at seven colleges. It was produced by the Association of American Colleges in collaboration with the National Women's Studies Association.
"One of the most significant things that comes out of the study is how vigorous, how engaged students are intellectually in women's studies, and how personally involved they are in its subject matter," says Musil, who edited the publication.
Students report that women's studies helps them understand different viewpoints and people, develop critical perspectives, and engage in more debates.
But students surveyed - most of whom were women - say the most important benefit from the classes is a greater freedom to talk about women's issues and draw upon their own experience than many of them find in other courses.
Students say that teachers build in more opportunities for student participation in women's-studies courses than in other courses. They also say the material often awakens them to new subject matter and gives them courage to be more critical in their thinking.
"Many students talk about the fragmentation of knowledge and the lack of connection they feel between courses and their own lives," Musil says. "None of this was apparent with students who took women's studies."
Musil says a common criticism of women's studies is that it alienates men. But male students in the study told a different story. Although some men resisted the content and teachings of women's studies programs, over time they began to engage intellectually in the material. The study also found that men who are enrolled in women's-studies form closer friendships with women in those classes than with women in other courses.
"I get tired of people saying women's studies is about male-bashing," says Sue Green, a second-year master's student in the women's-studies program at Ohio State University. "We might bash patriarchal structures, and as much as men feel identified with those [structures] they may feel attacked, but I don't think we sit around and talk about how evil guys are all the time."
Is women's studies becoming more feminist-oriented?
"That's something that would be hard to measure," Kolmar says. "Since scholarship in women's studies is diversifying in so many ways to be more varied theoretically and much broader in the content it covers, I wouldn't say my courses are becoming more feminist or less feminist, but they're able to represent a wide variety of perspectives."
Women's-studies scholars say one of the most exciting developments over the last 10 years is the growth in material by third-world women, African-American women, and other women of color.
Musil says the variety of voices that came out of the 1980s was part of the exploration of differences among women.
"I think the challenge in the '90s," she says, "is putting together the notion of the commonality of women and things we share: [concerns about] violence, health, family, economic issues ... and ways in which we can forge a political and intellectual agenda that allows us to think about constructing a world that helps all women flourish."